The Joys of Past Moments

Auburn students use 3D printing to provide prosthetic devices

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Music never left her soul.

She recalls the tranquility, the memories, the stirred emotions stimulated by the chords.

Army veteran Shanan LeFeat wants to recapture those feelings. She had played the cello and viola since the seventh grade, but those pleasures vanished when she lost her left arm as the result of a motorcycle accident in 2009 as she left base one evening at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

"This is going to happen," she said of the potential to play again.

"When I was having a bad day, I played the cello at my grandmother's house," remembered LeFeat, who lived with her grandmother in Oregon as a child. "I was introduced to symphony and I was like 'ooh' I want to do that. I would play the cello for hours. There are so many emotions that I was experiencing, painful moments I didn't want to share with anybody. The cello allowed me to do that without using any words. It was incredible."

Auburn University industrial design students in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction are working with LeFeat and other amputees to help them regain not just physical movement, but the joy of past moments.

"How cool would this be," LeFeat said as student Abby Hinson adjusted the prosthetic arm designed by a student team and fabricated with 3D printers. "They think outside the box."

Her team consists of Hinson of Auburn, Hannah Conrad of Memphis and Leigh Anne Alfano of Birmingham working in Associate Professor Jerrod Windham's industrial design class. "She came to us with a variety of different prosthetic ideas," Conrad said. "Once hearing those, we were able to sketch them all out and begin concept-developing those ideas through prototyping. We used our 3D printers and 3D scanners."

Conrad worked on the shoulder mechanism and movement, while Hinson developed the vest and shoulder plate. Alfano worked on the attachment below the device's elbow joint which can be changed for different tasks. The students use small, desktop 3D printers that exude carbon fiber as a continuous strand to form the devices, which mimic the students' drawings.

The team also received significant contributions from the Prosthetics and Orthotics Department at Alabama State University, including a number of graduate students under the direction of past director Dr. Chad Duncan, CPO, LPO.  Dr. Duncan and his team not only helped Auburn's students develop an understanding of prosthetics and the process by which they are fabricated, they casted Shanan's shoulder using a unique technique Dr. Duncan had developed in his years of practice as a certified prosthetist. The cast was then digitized to generate the shoulder plate.

Despite Auburn's class ending in the spring, Windham and the Auburn students continue to refine the device.

"The most interesting component to this is our modularity, so that is something I would love to work more on and have other components for Shanan to use," Hinson said. "We think that maybe this is where the future can go in prosthetic devices, that you're not limiting the individual to just one component."

Most current prosthetic devices monitor signals from shoulder muscle sensors, but sweat affects the sensors, causing them to not operate properly. The Auburn-developed device works without sensors. "Our goal is to make this available to others," said Conrad. "We hope people can print it themselves."

The student trio also worked with Guy Harrison, Auburn professor of string music education, who arranged the loan of a cello, and the Alabama Artificial Limb Group in Opelika.

LeFeat, who was left-handed prior to the accident, is learning how to use the cello's finger board with her right hand, and to move the new prosthetic arm and the bow with her body. The students share her excitement.

"It's been a really rewarding experience to be able to have her hold that cello again and take her over to the concert hall and see her face light up," Alfano said.

LeFeat has started playing a chord or two, but the goal is far from complete. LeFeat told the team, "If you guys could make something so that I could play the viola, I would learn 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' and I would play it for you.

"What makes me feel really good is that other people who have upper body amputations, especially at my level or even higher, there'll possibly be way more opportunities for them as well," said LeFeat, who served 10 years as an Army mechanic, including two tours in Iraq. She now lives in Salem, Alabama, where she and her husband and four children have a farm.

"If we can get Shanan to play the cello, that would be the biggest reward that I think I have received in my professional career as a designer and educator," Associate Professor Windham said.

Simple pleasures like throwing a baseball

Fellow class participant Tom Dowling wants to throw a baseball with his 2-year-old son. The 2010 Auburn graduate lost that simple pleasure after losing his thumb and index and middle fingers from his right hand due to a fireworks accident in 2015.

"As he's getting older he wants to play catch," Dowling said. "Without my right hand, it's very difficult for me. It looks like some of the iterations we came up with this semester will allow me to be able to play catch with him again. That would be pretty fantastic."

Prior to working with Auburn students, Dowling bought a 3D printer and started experimenting with designs to hold a pen. "Partial hand amputations are very rare," he said. "There are not a whole lot of options, especially because of the amount of dexterity that you would have to replicate to get a good hand."

He wants to do the simple things like writing, being able to hold a pen properly and shaking a hand. "Already even with the models they have developed after three months I've been able to do some of those things significantly easier. It has been fantastic working with the students. This has been a wonderful experience."

His student team consists of Brittany Moore of Las Vegas, Becca Harris of Brevard, North Carolina, and Daniel Newton of Fayette. "We all three put our heads down to the drawing table to figure out some way to give him a replacement of any sort, if it's just to shake a hand or to write," Newton said.

The students combined 3D printing with flexible materials that are new to the industry, developing three models for Dowling: one for shaking hands; one for a pinching motion; and a model with replacement fingers to allow for movement.

"I looked at and modified the design of the Flexy Hand 2 by Steve Woods [a noted prosthesis designer]," Newton said. "The challenge was modifying it for a partial hand amputee."

"To be able to provide him something to allow him just a moment with his son that he would have never been provided, like playing catch or throwing a ball. You just don't forget that as a kid, and I want to make sure he doesn't either."

Dowling, who earned a degree in sociology at Auburn with a concentration in crime and deviance, is a former criminal investigator for the Tallapoosa Sheriff's Department and now works for a church in Dadeville, Alabama.

"I didn't want to take a slot [in law enforcement] when I couldn't go out in the field," Dowling said. "I am the administrator for Covenant Presbyterian Church and hopefully one day will go to seminary."

Auburn donors play key role

The 3D printers used by the students were purchased with funds generated during the first Tiger Giving Day in December, an online crowd-funding event designed to highlight a variety of Auburn programs and initiatives.

"Last year I gave a presentation during Auburn's Research Symposium and mentioned the potential 3D printing has relative to prosthetic devices," Windham said. "The Office of Development saw it and approached me about crowd-funding, so we participated in Tiger Giving Day and were able to raise enough money to purchase three new 3D printers as well as material to run on those printers.

"That is what has served as the backbone of our fabrication for this studio."

Those donations, most of which were under $100, raised more than $10,000 for Windham's lab. Overall, Tiger Giving Day fully funded 18 projects on campus; this year's event will be Nov. 29.

Windham's class works each semester to make lives better for many others like Shanan and Tom.

"With 3D printing we can make things more customized and less expensive," Windham said. "You're able to customize things and tailor to individuals at a much cheaper price point than what we've been able to do in the past.

"We would like to have it as an open source that someone can download and print. We would like to make it available to as many people as possible."

Prosthetics is a licensed profession in the state of Alabama and all amputees should seek services from a licensed prosthetist.

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